Cuba is unique, no doubt about it. If anyone tells you it isn’t then they’ve missed the point. It’s ruggedly stunning, charmingly grimy and bafflingly backward. One thing it isn’t though, is what you expect it to be.
Before Steph and I headed to the home of the Mojito we read plenty of information online, we bought a Fodor travel guide and spent time looking at blogs from some of our most trusted bloggers. Despite all this, we were surprisingly caught out on the trip, and worse, we were hugely disappointed. We’d been given an image of Cuba that simply isn’t real, unless you happen to be in the all inclusive resorts where that image is created.
So here it is, six essential Cuba tips. If you’re thinking of visiting and you’re looking for a budget trip to see the real Cuba then read on and avoid being caught out.
Tip 1: Money
You are not able to obtain Cuban currency before you get there. They throw an extra 10% charge on US dollars so we recommend taking Euros or Canadian dollars. Obviously after everyone has disembarked the planes they need to get a taxi into Havana but no one has any cash. So the ill equipped airport requires every passenger to stand in a line at one of two currency booths in order to acquire the Cuban Peso. Expect to wait a minimum of an hour. We managed to get a taxi driver to take Euro instead and changed our currency at our Casa and the banks. American credit and debit cards can NOT be used in Cuba so be aware whatever money you have brought in is everything you have. You can use cards from other countries, if you have one, but only at cash points. Likewise when you go to leave the country expect to get an awful exchange rate in changing your money back as they are well aware you can’t do so anywhere outside of Cuba.
Solution: Change money to cover $150 a day into Canadian Dollars (for the best exchange rates) then either bolt for the kiosk out in front of the airport or just pay a cab driver in Euros to take you into town and head for the bank, take your passport with you.
Tip 2: Accommodation
If you are looking to see Cuba for what it is, then stay clear of the big hotels. They’re nice enough, but surely the reason to go to Cuba is to experience the colonial buildings and see who these isolated, frozen in time locals really are. If you stay in the hotels you’ll be safe and sound inside your bubble, but the way to do it is with the people. Head to this AirBnB link and search Cuba or www.casahavanaparticular.com to book the cuban version of AirBnB. Both are very cheap, and in actual fact can be more interesting and stunning than the pricey hotels. We stayed in three, all were basic, we had a room with a fridge and a safe, plus an en-suite with toilet and shower. The hosts were helpful and pleasant, and we were in the middle of the action in Havana.
You are not going to find amazing accommodation for ludicrously cheap prices, but you can find good places for reasonable prices.
Solution: Stay with the locals and book ahead.
Tip 3: Food
Lower your expectations, it’s not a trip highlight. We’d read about delicious cuban cuisine and enjoyed great Cuban food here in the states. No no no. One of our daily grinds was finding a place to eat which served something more than rice and beans with either plain fish or shredded beef (ropa vieja). A standing joke in Cuba is “what are the three biggest failures of the Revolution? Breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” You are not going to put on weight. Cuba has been using the ‘ration book’ for the last 50 years, with every citizen being supplied the appropriate amount of food to remain healthy, its 50 years out of date and notable missing items are green vegetables and spices, thus the modern food is lacking flavor.
A good deal of people get sick (both Steph and I suffered, and we ate in more expensive places), so you’re best sticking to certain food groups. There are some places in Havana that we could recommend, Cafe O’Reilly does epic coffees and good simple food. Los Nardos opposite the Capitol building is one of the better restaurants we found, though the queue begins early so get there before the rush, and finally Cerveceria Antiguo Almaden de la Madera y El Tabaco (quite a mouthful) is a cool place built on the harbor front south east on the southern most point of San Ignacio. It seems to be a converted shipping warehouse and the place has a tasty brewer on site.
Solution: Lower your expectations and look up reputable places before you arrive. If you are worried, pack some snacks and supplies!
Tip 4: Travel
This one can be split into two discrete issues: local travel (within Havana) and island wide travel. Lets start with around Havana.
Havana is like a beehive of activity, people flying every which way and mostly to find or transport tourists. If you need a cab you’ll have no issue, actually the issue comes if you wish to walk, with locals shouting “taxi!” at you every ten feet. For such a walkable city everyone seems intent on putting you in a car. The ease of procurement is balanced however by the cost. A cab in Havana is actually more expensive than in the US so expect a minimum of a $10 fee in most cases. Honestly, with almost everywhere within a 30 minute walk, just stroll and enjoy the free scenery.
Moving nationwide is a whole new problem. Cabs are ludicrously expensive, to get to Vinalez or Varadero for a day or two (a quick hour or so drive) will set you back around $60-$100 per passenger. Yep, its like a whole other flight! Do yourself a favor and use the Viazul or book onto a Cubatur coach. They are clean and air conditioned (exceptional by Cuban standards) and cost between $10 and $25 per person.
The problem is organizing them. You’ll need to get into hotel lobbies to book with curator (or find a small hidden tourist office) and the Viazul station is an hours walk out of Havana center. Cab it for $10 and save yourself the pain. Once there, it’s a frenzy of non english speaking visitors and staff, be prepared for a little chaos and be aware that Viazul buses can book up for weeks in advance.
Solution: Head direct to the Viazul station from the airport, book any tickets you need all at once so you have all your journeys reserved. Do not use the website as you will pay but end up seatless!
Tip 5: Language
I learned german at school, for one year, and didn’t take well to it! In fairness I had a South African german teacher I could barely understand when she spoke in english so I only accept part blame here. My spanish is non existent which seemed like not such a big deal before I traveled but wow, a big deal it was. The island has very few english speakers and even in the tourist centers its hard to find them. Most importantly when you try to book transport or just want to find banks, organize currency exchanges or just not get ripped off, speaking spanish is a good start. Not to mention the locals seem to treat anyone who might be American like a disease which must be avoided. I downloaded the google translate app before I left, you can pick the language and download it before leaving, essential in a country which has essentially no internet. It worked so well the lady running our casa made me give her the details so she could use it for future guests.
Solution: Brush up on some basic spanish and download the google translate app for use offline over there, its a god send.
Tip 6: Packing
If you’re looking for budget travel, cheap flights are possible, and as we’ve discussed, the Viazul gets you around on the cheap. If you want to keep costs down you’ll want to avoid checking bags. Besides, it also means avoiding the chaos at the Havana airport side at baggage claim. So can you do a week with just a bag? Yep. Here’s what you need (we’ve added some helpful links to the products):
- Thin comfy t-shirts/tops
- A couple of pairs of shorts
- Underwear and socks
- Flip flops in case you hit the beach
- Comfy shoes
- Basic toiletries
- Sun Lotion (Fill a few carry on’s if you can or expect to pay double)
- One going out outfit
- A water bottle
- A good day pack
- Phone and charger with offline apps pre downloaded
- Your camera
Havana is low key and you will not stand out wearing basics. It’s hot, it’s dirty and it’s hard to find bottled water. I always take a camera bag with a few bits stashed in the hold while Steph took all the clothes in her bag. It’s certainly easier for two people but very doable alone.
I could go on forever with things we learned but lets keep it punchy! If you read around and know what to really expect, you’ll have fun in Cuba, just make sure you don’t read 50 post about how epic it is and nothing else. It is an interesting place, and the appeal to American’s, who can finally visit is obvious, just know that it’s not your typical Caribbean trip.
If you have any questions just leave a comment below! Let us know what you think of Cuba!
Rich & Steph